SPT v2n3n4 - Social Constructivism for Philosophers of Technology: A Shopper's Guide

Number 3-4
Spring-Summer 1997
Volume 2

Social Constructivism for Philosophers of Technology: A Shopper's Guide

Philip Brey, Twente University


Social constructivist approaches in technology studies have recently gained the attention of philosophers of technology, as is shown by a number of publications (e.g., Mitcham , 1995; Feenberg and Hannay, 1995; Winner , 1991, 1994; Feenberg, 1992, 1995). Whereas the aim of some of these studies is to provide a philosophical critique of social constructivism (e.g., Winner , 1991), others aim to incorporate notions and ideas of social constructivism into the philosophy of technology (e.g., Feenberg , 1992, 1995). The aim of this essay is not to (merely) critique social constructivism, nor is it to incorporate social constructivist notions into a philosophical analysis of technology. Its aim is, rather, to ask and (provisionally) answer two questions concerning the potential implications of social constructivism for philosophy of technology: (1) Could the philosophy of technology benefit from social constructivist approaches in technology studies through an incorporation of some of their analyses, concepts, and theories? (2) If so, how would the philosophy of technology be transformed as a result? 2 These two questions cannot be answered properly without an evaluation of the weak and strong points of both current philosophy of technology and current social constructivist technology studies. A large part of this essay will be devoted to such an assessment.

In asking how the philosophy of technology may benefit from social constructivism, I am assuming that an agenda of relevant issues and research questions in the philosophy of technology already exists. The philosophy of technology was and is concerned with philosophical questions concerning the nature of technology, and the impact of technology on things of value: the human psyche, society, culture, and the environment. The expected role of social constructivist studies would therefore be to better help the philosophy of technology answer such questions. The possibility should not be excluded, however, that a consideration of these studies shows that certain traditional questions in the philosophy of technology are misconceived because they are based on false empirical presuppositions and hence need to be discarded, that other questions need to be rephrased, and that novel philosophical questions present themselves.

In the next section, the case will be made that the philosophy of technology ought to pay more serious attention to empirical studies of technology, and that, among such studies, social constructivist studies have special appeal for the philosophy of technology. In section 3, social constructivist approaches in technology studies will be characterized briefly, and three varieties of social constructivism, broadly defined, will be distinguished: strong and mild social constructivism, and actor-network theory. Section 4 contains a critique of current social constructivist technology studies, taking as its point of departure an influential earlier critique of social constructivism by Langdon Winner (1991). Section 5 provides a critical discussion of both mild social constructivism and actor-network theory, their divergences from mainstream philosophy of technology, and their potential implications for the philosophy of technology. Section 6 does the same for strong social constructivism. The balance is drawn in section 7.


One criticism sometimes leveled at the philosophy of technology is that its theories tend to be abstract, and say a lot about "technology," "society," and "humanity," but little about particular technologies and their impacts, and particular social controversies in which technology plays a role. A second criticism that is sometimes voiced is that theories in the philosophy of technology often make or presuppose empirically testable claims, but that these claims are often not based on, or supported by, empirical evidence. Worse, some of its recurring empirical claims have been claimed to be false. In particular, technological determinist conceptions of technological change presupposed in many philosophical studies of technology (e.g., Ellul , 1954; Winner , 1977; Gehlen , 1980) have been claimed to be empirically inadequate (e.g., MacKenzie and Wajcman , 1985a; Pinch and Bijker , 1987; Noble , 1984). As Pinch and Bijker (1987) have claimed, the philosophy of technology is in need of "more realistic models of both science and technology" (p. 19).

Empirical studies of technologies and their impacts may be useful to the philosophy of technology, I claim, by aiding the philosophy of technology in arriving at analyses that are more concrete and detailed, and that are empirically more realistic. They can help the philosophy of technology to arrive at empirically more realistic theories by supporting or rejecting empirical claims made or presupposed by theories in the philosophy of technology, such as claims about technological change and technological innovation, the way technology impacts society, and the characteristics of different types of technology, and by suggesting alternative empirical claims. These two functions of empirical studies of technology may be summed up by claiming that such studies are able to provide philosophical theories with micro-elaborations of their claims and concepts: insofar as philosophical claims and concepts have an empirical component, this empirical component may be corroborated, amended, or replaced by the empirical concepts and claims of empirical studies of technology. Micro-elaborations are particularly important for studies in social and political philosophy of technology and technology ethics, because such studies typically presuppose some empirical model of technology dynamics. They can also prove relevant for other areas in the philosophy of technology. 3

Philosophical studies of technology that presuppose some conception of technological change would consequently be improved, I claim, by incorporating empirically informed models of technological change. Because the currently most influential models of technological change in technology studies are arguably social constructivist models, these models are a prime candidate for incorporation into the philosophy of technology. Moreover, the potential relevance of social constructivist models of technological change for the philosophy of technology does not remain limited to their analysis of technological innovation. These models also contain (often implicit) accounts of the way in which technology impacts society. They show that technological innovation does not take a linear path from theory to application to introduction of the technology into society, but is instead influenced by social choices at every point. Consequently, technologies bear the imprint of the social processes that have brought them forth.

Because it is during its development stage that many of the social and cultural effects of a new technology are determined, through various processes of social negotiation and interpretation, it becomes important for philosophical studies of the impact of technology on society and culture to take a closer look at this development stage. Only if technology evolved according to some internal logic, and had its social and cultural effects conditioned by this logic, or if technologies were strictly neutral, would it be justified to ignore this development stage, because it would then suffice to study this logic, or to study the choices that societies make after a technology has been developed. If their models of technological change are correct, however, social constructivist studies could be helpful in revealing how the social and cultural impacts of a technology correspond to decisions made during its development stage. In this way, they could help the philosophy of technology to better understand these impacts.


Social constructivist approaches are currently influential in both science studies and technology studies. The label "social constructivism" is used to refer to a variety of related, predominantly sociological approaches in science and technology studies. The roots of many, though not all, of these approaches lie in the sociology of knowledge ( Bloor , 1976), and many social constructivists who now study technology have their roots in science studies, only to have turned to technology later on (see Woolgar , 1991). The starting point of social constructivist technology studies can be placed in the mid-eighties (see Bijker , Hughes , and Pinch , 1987). Since then, this paradigm has yielded dozens of books and hundreds of articles, most of them socio-historical case studies of technological innovation and technological change.

The term "social constructivism" is sometimes used in a narrow sense, to refer to the influential Social Construction of Technology (SCOT) approach that was outlined originally in Pinch and Bijker (1987) and Bijker (1987), and a number of related approaches, such as those of Collins (1985) and Woolgar (1991). In a broader sense, which will be used throughout this essay, the term also includes what are called "social shaping" approaches (e.g., MacKenzie and Wajcman , 1985a, 1985b; MacKenzie , 1990), and the actor-network approach of Bruno Latour, Michel Callon, and John Law, and their followers (e.g., Callon , 1987; Latour , 1987).

There are different approaches in social constructivism, but they have a family resemblance to one another. Although there are few features that they all have in common, there are some features that are fairly typical. First, social constructivism includes a conception of technological development as a contingent process, involving heterogeneous factors. Accordingly, technological change cannot be analyzed as following a fixed, unidirectional path, and cannot be explained by reference to economic laws or some inner technological "logic." Rather, technological change is best explained by reference to a number of technological controversies, disagreements, and difficulties, that involve different actors (individuals or groups that are capable of acting) or relevant social groups , which are groups of actors that share a common conceptual framework and common interests. These actors or groups engage in strategies to win from the opposition and to shape technology according to their own plan.

Social constructivist approaches typically employ a principle of methodological symmetry , or methodological relativism ( Pinch and Bijker , 1987; see Pels , 1996). This principle, in its most common form, implies that the analyst remains impartial as to the "real" properties of her object of analysis, viz. technology. This implies, among other things, that the analyst does not evaluate any of the knowledge claims made by different social groups about the "real" properties of the technology under study. This principle was originally formulated in the sociology of knowledge ( Bloor , 1976), where it was motivated by the idea that in a sociological explanation of claims to (scientific) knowledge, it is both possible and desirable to remain agnostic about any role of "the world" in settling scientific controversies. Instead, the analyst should analyze putatively true and false claims symmetrically, explaining them by reference to similar (sociological) factors. Such agnosticism is held to be desirable because the analyst is claimed to have no independent access to the world, and hence no independent way of evaluating knowledge claims of scientists and others. Such agnosticism is claimed to be possible because it is conjectured that the world plays a small or even nonexistent role in settling controversies between different knowledge claimants, and that social factors are much more important.

As a consequence of this principle, when applied to technology, the analyst will generally avoid making claims about the true nature of technology, including claims about the (in)operativity of artifacts, technological (in)efficiency, success or failure in technical change, the (ir)rationality of technological choices and procedures, technological progress, the real function or purpose of an artifact, and intrinsic effects of technology. Because the analyst avoids reference to real properties of a technology, moreover, such properties cannot be invoked to explain technological change. For example, no reference should be made to the actual properties of an artifact in explaining its commercial success, or its selection out of a pool of several other designs (see Staudenmaier, 1995).

The outcome of the process of controversy and strategy mapping that surrounds technical change is the stabilization of a technology, together with concomitant ("co-produced") social relations. Stabilization of a technology implies that its contents are "black-boxed," and are no longer a site for controversy. Its stabilized properties come to determine the way that the technology functions in society. Most social constructivists, including SCOT scholars, attribute the stabilization of an artifact to an agreement or settlement between different social groups, which arrive at a similar interpretation of a technology, as the result of a series of controversies and negotiations. Technology is claimed by these social constructivists to have interpretive flexibility: it has no objective, fixed properties, but allows for different interpretations, not only of its functional and social-cultural properties but also of its technical content, that is, the way it works. Facts about a technology are hence not objectively given by the technology itself, but are determined by the interpretations of relevant social groups. The rhetorical process of agreement on the true nature of a technology as the outcome of negotiation and social action is called closure . Technology is hence socially shaped or socially constructed: its properties are largely if not exclusively determined by the interpretive frameworks and negotiations of relevant social groups.

The above broad characterization of social constructivist technology studies obscures the fact that a variety of approaches exists, between which there are important differences. There have been various attempts at classifying different approaches within social constructivism (e.g., Bijker and Law, 1992a; Sismondo, 1993; Collins and Yearley, 1992; Woolgar , 1991; Grint and Woolgar , 1995). The following taxonomy of three (broad) approaches is loosely based on these attempts. 4

The most characteristic variety of social constructivism in technology studies may be called strong social constructivism . This approach is the one aligned most closely with the sociology of scientific knowledge, and includes the SCOT-approach, as well as the work of such scholars as H. M. Collins and Steve Woolgar. It vigorously upholds the principle of symmetry, and hence avoids all reference to the actual character of technology in its analyses. Technological change is to be explained by reference to social practices, particularly by reference to processes of interpretation, negotiation, and closure by different actors and social groups. Technology is a genuine social construction, that is, a stabilized technology can only be explained by reference to the social elements (including other socially constructed entities) that have produced its stabilization. No "properties," "powers," or "effects" can be attributed to technologies themselves.

Mild social constructivism is the label that will be used to characterize more moderate approaches, that sometimes go under the name of "social shaping" approaches (e.g., MacKenzie and Wajcman , 1985a, 1985b; MacKenzie , 1990). 5 Social shaping approaches retain conventional distinctions, between the social and the natural, and between the social and the technical, and study the way in which social factors shape technology. They do not reject a role for nonsocial factors in technological change, and are also willing to attribute properties and effects to technology, although these properties and effects are usually claimed to be defined relative to a particular social context. Because technologies are socially shaped, these properties and effects are in large part social properties and social effects, that can be attributed to social biases or politics "built into" or "embodied by" these technologies.

Actor-network theory, sometimes simply called "constructivism" (without the "social"), is a third influential approach. It studies stabilization processes of technical and scientific objects as these result from the building of actor networks , which are networks of human actors and natural and technical phenomena. Actor-network theorists employ a principle of generalized symmetry, according to which any element (social, natural, or technical) in a heterogeneous network of entities that participate in the stabilization of a technology has a similar explanatory role ( Callon , 1987; Latour , 1987; Callon and Latour , 1992). Strong social constructivism is criticized for giving special preference to social elements, such as social groups and interpretation processes, on which its explanations are based, whereas natural or technical elements, such as natural forces and technical devices are prohibited from being explanatory elements in explanations. Actor-network theory also allows for technical devices and natural forces to be actors (or "actants") in networks through which technical or scientific objects are stabilized. By an analysis of actor networks, any entity can be shown to be a post hoc construction, but entities are not normally socially constructed, because stabilization is not the result only of social factors.